Steinbeck1The best books usually read very naturally, with a rhythm that flows easily and almost reads itself, using language that perfectly suits the premise and characters. How many times have you stopped and thought about how it got to that point? Well, one answer is that these writers have a talent and the perfect concoction of words just flows from their handcrafted quills.

Sorry to disappoint, but, no, that’s not how it works. Usually, there is a lot of wringing of hands and pulling of hair involved—one of the reasons why so many writers are bald. No, it’s true, they just wear wigs to hide the secret to perfect writing.

The reality of writing is that it is a lengthy and time-consuming process. The job of a writer is not only to cough up the words but writing a book is a process during which you are making thousands of decisions. All those cool events in that story you’re reading need to be thought up and detailed out. Is that corridor leading to the left or to the right, or is it perhaps leading downstairs? What about furniture and decor? Who picked the wallpaper? Does it look spartan or is it richly furnished, and if so, with what?

Every scene in a book requires countless decisions to be made. Some come naturally out of the overall context, but many times, these decisions can be stubbornly hard. So hard, in fact, that the most typical problem of “writer’s block” is that the writer is simply not ready to commit to a decision and stalls the process as a result. It is more common than you might think because it is hard for a writer to make certain decisions. They lock you down on a certain path and it just may not be what the story needs later down the road.

The same decision-making process often applies to the writing itself. Questions, such as which words to use, how to describe settings and events, how to paint characters, their idiosyncrasies, their speech patterns and behavior, all of these things require forethought and a brick-load of decision making. As a result many writers—myself included—write their books in iterations.

Yeah, we’re about as perfect as the gnarled roots of that Ficus tree in your backyard. Even the best of writers have to go back and rework their creative flow. Let me show you how this works, how a paragraph of text is shaped and polished in such an iterative process, from its first draft to the final version you will find in the published book.

When I first write a book, I typically do not concern myself with grammatical details and style all that much. I try to write what is in my mind, without losing too much time so I won’t lose my train of thought. This can be very rough sometimes, but it does not matter because it is easy enough to clean up at a later time. The point is to get the story out and written down before it takes a one-way trip to Europe and never returns.

Hunted_Flat-192x300I find that during times I sink into what is called a “writer’s dream.” It doesn’t mean I’m writing in my sleep, but rather that I am completely absorbed and focused on the story. During those times I will see the scene I am writing before my mind’s eye, like a movie, and I am caught up in it, simply dumping it into the computer the way I dream it. I see characters act, react, and talk, allowing me to adapt believable speech patterns and behaviors for those characters. Oftentimes I will actually see specific actors in these parts, helping me to visualize the scene unfold even better. Before you ask, yes, I do have an actor I see when I think of Jason Dark, but I will not tell you who it is. No offense, but I just don’t want you to have any preconceived notions when reading about Jason Dark. The character is for you to experience and shape in your own imagination.

Once the story found its way into my computer, I have what is called a First Draft. This first draft is a rough unpolished piece of writing that will require a serious amount of work before it is ready for the prime time. Let me illustrate this with an excerpt from my book “Hunted,” the most recent Jason Dark thriller. What you see below is the first draft version. This is what I dumped out of my brain and into the silicon nethers of my computer, complete with typos and errors, without any work or cleanup done to it. Not very glorious, but well deserving to show the process.

A pale moon appeared from behind its veil of clouds and cast its hues across the gaslit streets of London, the pale blue fingers crawling across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as always, oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its inhabitants.
A breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer a few days ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, moving into every side street and court in the dockyards where ships were moored and guarded by the dim light of unsteady lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Not a muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, like parchment, and blotched with rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds with no sign of life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin, red rim and a small gold tassel.

With the first draft out of my system, I will usually set it aside for at least a week or two, without looking at it or even thinking about it. I do this so I lose my immediate attachment with the words. I’ve seen too many writers go mad over the prospect of having to change the words they set down in the manuscript because they were so much in love with them, they actually wanted to marry them. To avoid my trip to the looney bin, I distance myself from my initial brain dump, so that it becomes nothing more than an assortment of words and sentences.

I want to have a fresh approach to the book. I don’t want to get stuck in the same thought patterns I had when writing the book. I want to keep my mental health and more importantly, I want to experience it more like a reader than the writer. It makes an enormous difference. As writers, we analyze sentences—even those of other authors—and it is about as impossible to turn that mentality off as it is to get a politician to put together a clear sentence. That is not how your average reader perceives the book, however. They want to be entertained. They want to dive into it and immerse themselves in your story.

So, after some time has passed I will read the book. Very slowly, sentence by sentence. I will look for spelling errors, I will check the sentences for grammatical issues. Does it sound right or do sound like a pompous douche? Did I get my point across or have I been overly obtuse? I look for instances where I could perhaps shuffle around a sentence so it becomes more powerful.

Below you will find the same paragraph as before, only this time I have made a first revision pass at it. Note how certain things have changed. These might look like small changes, but the thing about really good writing is that its beauty is in the detail. One word changed can make a world of difference and truly elevate the impact of the text to a new level, or it can improve readability, allowing the sentence to roll all of its own.

The pale face of the moon appeared from behind its veil of clouds and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers crawling across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as always, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its inhabitants.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where ships were moored and guarded by the dim light of unsteady lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Not a muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, like parchment, and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin, red rim and a small gold tassel.

After this first revision, I will immediately go back and read the book again. This is important to me because I now have the entire story and plot details still vividly in my mind. This step, to me, is crucial to hammer consistency into the story so that forward references are correct and actually make sense to the reader. I can mentally check if the information a character is referring to is actually known to him at that point in time. As a writer, it is all too easy to get caught up in the writer’s dream that we will occasionally forget to introduce key elements, hints or even people.
During this second reading, I will also constantly keep an eye on my verbs. Big step, that. Catch weak verbs and replace them with much stronger and all of a sudden you sound like a real Steinbeck. In fact, the maestro himself was one of the strongest proponents of strong verbs.

Use verbs, not adjectives, to keep your sentences moving. All fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.

There you go, straight from the master’s mouth. Strong verbs put your sentences on steroids. In addition, I will look at my word pictures, the nouns and descriptions I am using, to ensure my writing is as evocative as it can be.
At this stage I will also pay close attention to the rhythm and flow of the text. I will check the beginnings of sentences to make sure they are varied and interesting. If I notice too many sentences in a row starting with “He,” for example, I know it is time to shake my writing like a cup of dice and work some rephrasing magic.

Below, for your pleasure, you will once again find the same passage as before. This time he version after I took a second pass at it. Once again, notice the subtle differences, and observe how these small changes actually do make a big difference.

The pale face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers creeping across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as usual, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its denizens.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city, and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where moored ships groaned, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Impassive, not a muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no signs of life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin, red rim and a small gold tassel.

At this time, I am usually close to what I want my text to be. If I am not entirely satisfied at this point, I will repeat the aforementioned process until I feel the text has reached the level of maturity that I am after. With each iteration, however, it becomes more and more important to keep the original intention in mind. It is all too easy to completely lose the original voice of the text by accident, which is, of course, not something I want to happen. The original zest of the story and its tone is critical and needs to stay intact. It will always take precedence over second-guessing myself.

It is time to give the book one more read. During this stage, I will try to put on my reader hat. I will read the book and take note of things that stick out, such as spelling errors and typos, or missing or misplaced punctuation marks. I will also note down adverbs as I encounter them to go back after the read and see if I can perhaps remove them, or replace them with stronger verbs instead. This I will do after the read because at this stage I want to experience the story as a whole and not break up the reading with a lot of distracting editing.

Below you will find the excerpt from “Hunted,” once again with these kinds of changes applied.

The pale face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers creeping across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as usual, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its denizens.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city, and driving out the stench at last, that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where moored ships groaned, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Impassive, not a single muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no signs of life. A velvet hat was crowning the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin blood-red rim and a small gold tassel.

At this point, I usually ask my wife, Lieu, to read it before I actually publish it. She is the Jason Dark series editor and knows the characters perhaps better than I do. She was usually also the person who helped me put together the storyline by providing input, suggestions and ideas, so she is very well suited to let me know when a character in my book acts out-of-character.

Lieu also has an uncanny ability to pick up on loose ends or things that make no sense. It makes for great commentary track while watching bad movies or TV shows, incidentally, and is incredibly valuable to me in my own books. She will point these issues out to me and ask questions, such as, “Why did the bad guy wait around all this time? He could have killed them on page 34 already.” It is then up to me to make things fit and perhaps add a sentence or reference in certain places of the story to make sure it all happens for a reason.

What comes next is crucial. At the same time it is, sadly, the step that all too many independent and self-published authors skip. Bring in the Editor!

I will send my book off to my editor, usually my friend Terry Coleman, in the case of the Jason Dark books. The job of the editor is essentially the same I have done in all the above steps, only that now it is being performed by a trained expert who has no prior affiliation with the text. He has a completely new set of eyes, he has a wealth of experience, he is a walking dictionary, thesaurus, and etymologist all wrapped in one person. Terry knows things I don’t. He notices things I don’t. He sees misplaced modifiers that I read over. He notices when something doesn’t make sense or feels stilted. He knows dialects and can polish the things people say, and he does all of that without breaking a sweat, before breakfast. In short, an editor is the ultimate egg-laying-wool-milk-hog.

Terry will return my book with all sorts of corrections and comments inserted as notes in the document. I will accept or reject these comments and correction suggestions at my own discretion, but even when I disagree with his suggestions, I will ALWAYS think about them before dismissing them. Most of the time I find that he is correct and that a small clarification here, or a restructuring there may lead to a stronger emotional response, or will simply improve the writing in general.

Below you will find the same passage we’ve been looking at all this time in its form, after Terry went over it.

The pallid face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, its pale blue fingers creeping across the desiccated features of a strange figure hiding in a darkened doorway. The city was bustling, as usual, all but oblivious to the evil that walked the cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its denizens.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, pushing fresh sea air through the city, and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where moored ships groaned, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garbs. Impassive, not a single muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified and blotched with ages of rot. The skin was hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that showed no signs of life. A velvet hat crowned the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin blood-red rim and a small gold tassel.

This is the way I had the passage published before, but at a later point fancy tickled me to give the book a read. Don’t know, why. Just so happened. It struck me immediately that after such a long absence, my mindset had completely changed and I began re-writing the passage extensively.

The pallid face of the moon emerged from behind its veil of clouds, and cast silvery hues across the gaslit streets of London, revealing small swirls of fog that drifted lazily through the night air. Its pale blue fingers crept across the desiccated features of a strange figure that stood, hiding motionlessly, in a darkened doorway, bereft of any life, it would seem. The city was bustling, as usual, all but unsuspecting of the evil that hid in the tenebrious shadows of its cobblestone streets, ready to suck the very life from its unsuspecting denizens. Oblivious to the sinister thoughts it harbored.
A crisp breeze blew from the south, driving fresh sea air through the city, and finally driving out the stench that had accompanied the dog days of late summer only a week ago. In serpentine wisps, a growing layer of fog wove its way through the moist night air, conquering every side street and court in the dockyards where ships groaned at anchor, guarded over by the unsteady light of dim lanterns.
The figure stood motionless, dressed in midnight blue silken garb. Impassive, not a single muscle moved underneath the parchment skin. The man’s cadaverous features were mummified, and blotched with ages of rot, the skin hanging from the skull bones in dry, crumbly folds that exhibited no signs of life. A velvet hat crowned the man’s head, all blue, except for a thin blood-red rim and a small gold tassel.

Gosh dang it, it actually got longer. After taking a few notes while reading the book, I actually decided to really rework the entire book. I pulled out the fine-toothed comb I use to coiffeur my words and went to work. By the time I was done, what used to be a 25,000-word novella had suddenly turned into a 45,000-word novel. Even threw in a few new chapters, characters and plot twists while I was at it.

Like the computer games I created in the past, it made me realize that a book is never really finished. We just stop working on it.

As you can see, writing a book is a lot more involved than simply putting down the initial text. It is a process that is iterative and very time-consuming, and can be extremely draining. But if done right, the end result can be exceedingly rewarding, for both, the writer and the reader equally. A carefully crafted book is a thing of beauty and well worth the effort.

JDSeriesThere you have it. A lot of reading involved here, and the fact that you made it down here shows that you really care. So, if you haven’t done so yet, no would be a tremendously great time to grab a copy of “Hunted,” over on Amazon. It’s totally awesome. It really is, and I just proved to you how serious I am about the book. I’ve worked it over and over again. Surely that warrants your support, won’t it? And once I got you on the hook with “Hunted,” there’s no reason for you not to go back and read all the other Jason Dark books I have available. Support the arts. Support me!

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